This festival is Coachella for Black influencers. Brands want in.

NEW ORLEANS — In the corner of the SheaMoisture kickoff party, a group of fashionable melanated women were being followed by a professional photographer. They had just left a private dinner hosted by L’Oreal, free of charge, just like their plane tickets and entrance fees to attend Essence Festival — the country’s largest multiday cultural and music festival celebrating all things Black culture.

Representatives from major lifestyle and beauty brands told The Washington Post they sometimes have difficulty connecting with Black consumers on a personal level. But at a place like Essence Festival, they get an inside look at the Black perspective, and companies have started hiring Black women to reach a long-ignored demographic.

At an influencer brunch hosted by Procter & Gamble and The Black Hair Experience, a pop-up art exhibit, plus-sized fashion content creator Kortlynn Jenae’ said it plainly: “Essence Festival is like the Wakanda for Black women.”

Shannae Ingleton Smith, who runs the Black talent agency Kensington Grey, said 13 of her 90 clients were selected by Essence Festival organizers to attend free of charge.

“We sent an email out to the influencers on our roster of the festivals that they might be interested in. No one wanted to go to Coachella, everyone picked Essence Fest,” Ingleton Smith said.

Ingleton Smith said her clients were required to post a pre-negotiated amount of content to their TikTok and Instagram pages for brands such as NYX Cosmetics, Pandora and Garnier during the four-day festival.

Essence Fest has been around for 29 years but gained mainstream recognition after the 2017 movie “Girls Trip” starring Jada Pinkett Smith and Tiffany Haddish. It’s described as a homecoming of sorts that happens for one weekend every July in humidity-hazed New Orleans — a place where knotless braids are the most recommended hairstyle.

You can double-dutch in the middle of the day at the convention center, catch Vice President Harris talk about Black wealth, eat freshly caught oysters with strangers and see Oprah Winfrey serenade Fantasia Barrino with a birthday cake. At night, rapper Juvenile is onstage at the Superdome and asks you to stretch before he performs that song. And you’re happy you patiently waited for Lauryn Hill because she surprises everyone with a Wyclef Jean reunion.

@missandrealewis When I think of Essence Fest I think of a girls trip and what better way to do it then with my girls and one of favorite brands @SheaMoisture We came, we saw and we conquered NOLA! Every day was an adventure as we bonded over food, culture, our hair, and everything Black! A Great Day in Harlem pop up was the perfect destination giving you a little slice of hip hop and New York culture in the middle of the New Orleans heat. And getting the chance to talk about @blackbeautyeffect while getting my hair done by @lacyredway on stage felt like I was living my Black girl magic dreams! Thanks to my girls Sarah, Daisha and Yvette for your sisterhood and thanks to @sheamoisture for making this Essence Fest so special! #agreatdaywithshea #sheamoisturepartner ♬ Aces by DKJ – Danny Johnson

“It’s transformed from a music festival to a place where you can come and get your cup filled,” said Taydra Mitchell Jackson, SheaMoisture’s chief marketing officer.

Jackson, who has attended eight Essence Festivals, says brands have shifted away from relying completely on celebrity endorsements.

“It’s not that we’ve walked away from traditional celebrities, but we have had to supplement in order to be able to reach a Gen Z audience,” Jackson said. “We used to make a ton of money offering people products by drawing them in using celebrities. Today, brands are bringing consumers and influencers in through curated experiences.”

Jackson says SheaMoisture didn’t attempt to sell any products on-site this festival. Instead, the company hosted panels, parties and film screenings that 10 influencers were a part of.

When an influencer shares bottles of bath items, curling custard and deep conditioner on display at the festival to their online followers and gushes about the wonderful experience they are having, it generates more authentic and relatable marketing. Brands hope that will later turn into more sales traffic.

“We move the needle. People look at us for fashion, for food, for inspiration. It only makes sense for brands to heed to our power,” influencer Ayanna Stephens said at a mixer.

Last year, influencers sold $3.6 billion worth of goods on the shopping platform LTK, a recent Forbes report said. According NielsenIQ, African American buying power is projected to reach $1.8 trillion annually by 2024. However, Black content creators and influencers were found to make 35 percent less than White creators, a 2021 study by the Influencer League and PR agency MSL found.

Over the past couple of years, some Black creators have spoken out about the unequal treatment they’ve experienced from brands. But at minority-focused festivals, such as Essence, Curlfest and the Ubiquitous Women’s Expo, these creators are given almost full creative control, freedom and support.

TikTok creator Fola Amudipe partnered with P&G’s hair care brand My Black is Beautiful two years in a row to be the brand’s Essence Fest influencer. In 2020, her first brand deal with P&G was for three figures when she had just 5,000 followers on Instagram and 1,000 subscribers on YouTube. Now, Amudipe has grown her following to 60,0000 on Instagram and 200,000 on TikTok; she commands a five-figure rate from the brand to capture social content and be featured at events during the festival. Her assistant was her plus-one.

“Our influencers have to embody unapologetic Blackness,” said Tomeka Williams, P&G’s vice president of hair care sales in North America. “They want to spark change and drive much-needed discussion to enable others to be seen.”

Another TikTok star, Blake Newby, met Target representatives last year at the festival when she worked as the beauty editor at Essence Magazine. “Funny enough, this year I’m here with them as an influencer and I’m also here with AT&T as their social media correspondent for the weekend,” Newby said.

The 28-year-old said she was an underpaid, overworked journalist for years who started making content on TikTok about her day-to-day life, which showed her running around New York City attending exclusive events, getting teeth veneers and styling her sew-in weave. She hired a manager and quit her editorial job nine months ago to be a full-time influencer.

“Brands are realizing that Black women are the drivers for so many things,” Newby said, “and so when a Black creator says ‘buy this’ or they say ‘I learned this,’ Black women listen.”

Disney invited more than 80 influencers, including Charles Brockman III, who makes comedic skits on TikTok for his 7 million followers, and YouTube couple Aaron and Kyra Abernathy, who make international travel content.

La Roche-Posay, a French skin care brand, brought out five Black dermatologists who are content creators to “democratize skin care education for people of color,” Justin Ollivierre, the company’s social media director, said. La Roche-Posay held panels on sun safety and treating dark spots and hyperpigmentation. Attendees could ask doctors questions directly. And hundreds of full-sized bottles of La Roche-Posay sunscreen inside clear fanny packs were dished out to attendees.

Taylar Barrington-Booker, founder of the Black influencer company Agency Cliquish, said she had five influencers secure Steve Madden partnerships for the festival.

Events like Coachella are still important, said Barrington-Booker, but “places that were built by us and for us is the greatest support a brand could give because it is acknowledging that we see you all, we don’t want you to fit into our boxes, we want to fit into yours.”

Some companies are just starting to zero in on the possibilities.

Milk Makeup representatives mingled with influencers at a private mixer on the third night of Essence Fest. They were there to scope out the scene for next year, which will be the festival’s 30th anniversary.

“We’re here to see all these beautiful Black creators and understand how in the years to come, how we can invest in a meaningful way to work with them,” Camille Hall, director of integrated marketing for Milk Makeup, said. “We learned that everyone here knows who they are, knows who their audience is and can speak to them without a filter. If brands are going to be here, it has to be right. We definitely feel like [festivals like Essence] are an opportunity that’s being missed for us, so that’s why we’re here.”

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